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Is Cheap Food Something To Celebrate?

There were three storms making headlines over the past week, and only two of them were weather related. While the storm dubbed “Stormageddon” spread a wintry blast across 30 U.S. states, the Australian coast was hit by a major cyclone. But the storm that had all the world on edge last week was taking place in the Middle East as the Egyptian government clung to power in the face of an angry public.

Rising food prices were not the sole cause of civil unrest in a country where the daily average intake is reported to be about 4,000 calories. They were, however, the catalyst – the last straw mobilizing a population already angry over a ruler’s failure to govern openly, democratically and fairly.

With global food prices reaching record highs for the second time in three years, pressure is mounting for a new world order – and it’s making those who benefited the most from the old world order extremely uncomfortable.

The surge in food prices, brought about this time by pending shortages of major food commodities, has had a destabilizing effect throughout the Middle East and in countries where food security cannot be taken for granted.

Food-crisis stories filled the wire services last week, telling us the UN Food and Agriculture Organization Food Price Index on Feb. 3 touched its highest level since officials began keeping records in 1990.

The index rose for the seventh month in a row to 231 in January, topping the peak of 224.1 in June 2008, when the world was last gripped in a food crisis.

“These high prices are likely to persist in the months to come,” FAO economist and grains expert Abdolreza Abbassian said in a statement.

Aid agencies have seen it all before.

“Today’s announcement by the Food and Agriculture Organization should ring alarm bells in capitals around the world,” said Gawain Kripke, a policy and research director for Oxfam America, an international development group.

“Governments must avoid repeating the mistakes of the past when countries reacted to spiralling prices by banning exports and hoarding food. This will only make the situation worse and it is the world’s poorest people who will pay the price,” he said.

Another story brings the reality of that to life.

“Before I would buy five pounds of beans every 10 days. Now I can only afford half that,” 66-year-old retiree Amada Lopez said at a central market in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, a country in which 70 per cent of the population lives in poverty. “If this situation lasts much longer, we will have to eat one less meal a day.”

In the midst of all this, Canadians were told they should prepare to celebrate Food Freedom Day Feb. 12, the calendar day by which the average Canadian will have earned enough to pay for the entire year’s worth of food and booze.

“In 2010, the average Canadian spent 11.9 per cent of personal disposable income on food; roughly the same percentage from 2009,” the Canadian Federation of Agriculture says in its annual message on the topic. So far, at least, Canadians have been spared from supercharged food inflation by healthy competition in the retail sector.

In fact, our food is so cheap in Canada, a recent study has shown we can afford to throw nearly half of it away, which makes Food Freedom Day seem even more inane and ironic.

We wouldn’t blame farmers, who stand to make a decent return for their labour this year (for a change), for getting a little irked with all this talk about soaring food prices and the calls to rein in costs by building stockpiles and imposing regulatory controls on speculators.

This, at the same time farmers are being told they need to ramp up production to meet the combined demands of growing world population and more upscale dietary preferences.

But it brings us back to a central question: Is cheap food really something to celebrate?

Nick Cullather, author ofThe Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia,and finalist for this year’s Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book on global affairs, says it is not.

“Since the 1950s, chronic underinvestment in agriculture has been considered a normal feature of a healthy, growing economy. A successful farm policy is one that delivers cheap food to urban consumers, whatever the cost at the producing end,” he writes in a recentGlobe and Mail.

He makes the case for more farmers in the world, not fewer. “This month the World Economic Forum, in an uneasy forecast, questioned whether farmers could meet the twin challenges of demography and climate. If history is any guide, they can, as they have in the past, but not unless they get paid,” Cullather writes.

This era of volatile food prices may indeed bring about a new world order – one that understands the value of farmers.

Rather than celebrating food freedom, it’s time we started celebrating the fact that we have farmers to produce the food. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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